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At the main entrance to Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, the roof gives the illusion of the Earth’s crust peeling away to reveal a window into the aquatic world.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Visitors to the official opening of the Ripley's Aquarium of Canada last week peered up with amazement at marine life from underwater acrylic tunnels, but had they visited the site of Toronto's newest tourist attraction a couple of hundred years ago, they would have been truly immersed.

"In the shoreline of the 1820s, looking at the old position of Front Street, our site would be completely underwater and one of our ideas was if we took the outline of our site and made a bit of an incision into this urban crust, then we're lifting and exposing Toronto's hidden waters, so to speak," says Patrick Fejér of B+H Architects, principal designers of the exterior of the building that faces Bremner Boulevard.

The result is a two-storey, 12,500-square-metre facility that juts out of the landscape, wedged tightly between the CN Tower and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

While Ripley Entertainment Inc. is no stranger to owning aquariums – it operates one in Tennessee and another in South Carolina – fitting one into a small plot of land between Front Street and Bremner Boulevard provided a whole new challenge and "very, very complicated construction," according to president Jim Pattison Jr.

Mr. Fejér adds, "We're not only limited in our footprint but we also had the CN Tower, which was an interesting conceptual relationship.

"For one, our building was much lower – aquariums don't stack nicely [like a high rise] – we were limited to two levels and we wanted to also have this seamless circulation without having elevators in the building. Everything is ramped."

The design allows for more than two million guests who are expected annually. They will spend an average of two- to 2-1/2 hours wending their way through the aquarium's 10 galleries, which showcase more than 16,000 aquatic creatures. The labyrinth of tunnels was a deliberate design choice, Mr. Fejér explains, as a way of compressing time within a limited space.

After working with Daniel Libeskind on the redesign of the Royal Ontario Museum in 2005, B+H Architects was conscious of how the building's visual appeal would be perceived to passers-by, and placed great import on the kind of contribution it would make to the urban realm in Toronto's evolving south core. The silver-and-white cladding of the facade implies motion or schools of fish, while the series of triangular blades that project from the building's skin mimic fins moving through water.

Though the building is about 30-per-cent larger than the Ripley's aquarium in Gatlinburg, Tenn., less than half of the space is open to the public. Back-of-the-house support takes up about 55 per cent of the space – 97 life-support pumps are needed to keep the 450 species of fish and invertebrates alive and the 5.7 million litres of water at optimal temperatures.

Significantly, Ripley's has left itself room to grow. The north wall of the building is temporary, and zoning applications show that the building is just Phase 1 of the original design plan, with Phase 2 likely to swallow up the SkyWalk to Union Station, forcing it to run through the aquarium or around the north end.

Growth in this area of Toronto south of the railroad tracks is par for the course these days. The south core of the city, former industrial land that had for many years sat idle once the railways had relocated maintenance operations elsewhere, has recently become a focal point for entertainment and tourism, as well as a new home for business and residential sites.

"What an amazing evolution that's happened," says David Whitaker, president and CEO of Tourism Toronto. "You've got North America's largest sports bar [Real Sports Bar & Grill], you've got a collection of really high-end restaurants. You've got, of course, a historic, legendary landmark in the CN Tower, two amazing big-event venues like the Rogers Centre and the Air Canada Centre.

"You can throw in two brand-new hotels if you think about Le Germain and the Delta. And, of course, now adding to that you have a family-friendly attraction, but also an attraction that will be an event space."

Though the aquarium officially opened its doors to the public only last week, its space is already booked solid for birthday parties and corporate events until January next year.

Getting a site in the south core was a key factor in Ripley's decision to construct an aquarium in Canada. (The firm would not reveal the project's cost.) Though the company first proposed the idea of a Toronto-based aquarium in 1996, locating the facility at Exhibition Place or somewhere outside the downtown core did not fit into the company's plans.

"We've always held out to it's got to be downtown, the heart of the city, because aquariums appeal to everybody," says Peter Doyle, general manager of Ripley's Aquarium of Canada. "So it's for the local market, it's for regional, domestic tourists and overseas tourists. So the location we've got here is the best and that's why we held out for this location."

The long-term impact of the new tourism hot spot – Toronto's first in more than 30 years – is not lost on those who work in that industry, but it also points to the rise of the south core in terms of its relevance to the city as a whole.

"I often use the joke but where would we all run to if we won the Stanley Cup championship?" Mr. Whitaker says of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who last celebrated NHL supremacy in 1967. "Well, this would be the neighbourhood where probably the biggest party that Toronto's ever seen would be held, and it's now being built out so it would be capable of hosting such a party.

"Bremner is going to become part of a collection of avenues, and again, great cities are known for their famous avenues, and we have famous avenues: Yonge Street, Bay Street, Front Street. Bremner now will be on the same vernacular, the same vocabulary as those other major defining avenues."

Seaworthy facts

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada features:

– More than 16,000 marine animals, including 450 species of fish and invertebrates and one species of reptile (sea turtle);

– 12,500 square metres of space;

– A 96-metre-long underwater tunnel with moving sidewalk;

– 5.7 million litres of water;

– Ten galleries;

– Fifty live exhibits with 17 exhibits of aquatic animals from Canada;

– Ninety-seven life-support system pumps;

– More than 100 interactive displays.

Source: Ripley's Aquarium of Canada